Farm Truths: Here’s what makes us optimistic about Indian agriculture

By Rajju Shroff

There is a vested interest in projecting the country’s farm sector as crisis-prone and underestimating its inherent robustness.

It was Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist, who framed the “spiral of silence” theory, which holds that when a wide majority starts to believe in a certain viewpoint, the remaining — howsoever well informed — tend to fall silent. It, then, allows for the predominant view to gain further ground and emerge as the norm.

The “spiral of silence” theory probably explains the general public opinion about Indian agriculture — as primitive, backward, un-enterprising, crisis-prone, and a major drag on economic growth. Strong and vocal vested interests, both within and outside the country, have so aggressively articulated this perception that it has got etched in people’s minds.

The truth is just the opposite: Indian agriculture today is structurally different and more robust compared to even the Green Revolution era. Between the early-1970s and the late-nineties, India’s annual farm gross domestic product (GDP) expanded from about $25 billion to over $100 billion. Not only was growth sluggish over three decades from a low base, it was also largely cereals-centric, limited to wheat and rice.

However, between 2000 and 2014, the country’s agricultural production has surged from $101 billion to $367 billion, driven mainly by high-value segments such as horticulture, dairy, poultry and inland fisheries. No other country grows as many food and non-food crops as India. Moreover, our small-sized family farms practice a unique kind of mixed agri-horti-livestock farming. It is, indeed, common to see agri farmers doubling up as milk producers, goat rearers, poultry keepers or even aqua-culturists.

The growth of a domestic industry that produces high-yielding seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, farm equipment and other modern inputs for our farmers, and improved roads and communication systems, have also contributed immensely to India becoming a global leader in agriculture. In 2014, India ranked second in agricultural output (after China), with an eight per cent global share. In the much-hyped services sector, India’s rank was 11th with a two per cent share of the global pie. It was even worse in manufacturing, where India’s global rank is 12th.

Agriculture is India’s largest private sector, employing over half of its total workforce. It is this labour-intensive agricultural sector that has taken India to global glory, whereas services and manufacturing are the real laggards.

When we assess yields or efficiency, the acceptable benchmark for India should be “total output” — the sum of everything a given land parcel produces, be it grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, milk, eggs, fish, meat, manure, honey or timber. This is as opposed to just “crop yield”, which refers to production per unit area of a single crop. High yields of the latter kind are typically achieved in the input-intensive industrial monoculture farming systems of western economies.

In India, the majority of farms fall in the marginal or small category with holding size below two hectares. Driven by the economic necessity to maximise returns, these small farms have evolved through self-engineered innovation into producing a variety of produce. Crop cultivation and livestock co-exist, ensuring year round economic activity. The aggregate agricultural output per unit area per year in India is among the highest in the world. Every unit of farmland in India produces multiple outputs, making its agriculture relatively resilient, vibrant and less vulnerable to uncertainties.

India is the world’s largest producer of milk, at 146 million tonnes (mt) in 2015. Smallholder dairy farming systems supply over 90 per cent of its milk. Stovers of cereals and legumes, haulms of potato, sugarcane tops, fruits and vegetable wastes, together with own farm-grown green fodder, are what the livestock here eat. Small herds of cattle and flocks of chicken in the backyard are important household assets.

The milk and eggs from them brings home regular income, supplementing the main income from crop sales.

The Indian food production and consumption patterns, too, are very unique. The world produces more “feed grains” than “food grains”, given that much of its food is meat-centric. Out of the 2,528 mt of global cereals output in 2015, the share of coarse grains was 55 per cent. In richer countries, 70 per cent or so of grain production gets fed to animals. But while the per capita annual consumption of meat in the world is 43 kg, and over 100 kg in the US, it is a mere 4 kg in India. Over here, “meatless meal” is what is more common. Therefore, food grains, vegetables, fruits and milk lead India’s food production as and consumption. The share of feed grains in our foodgrain production is less than 15 per cent.

Production of fruits and vegetables (256 mt) has now become higher than that of staple cereals such as rice and wheat (198 mt). Also, out of India’s food market, estimated at $312 billion, a third ($101 billion) is accounted for by fruits and vegetables, followed by milk and eggs ($74 billion). Cereals are a poor third ($61 billion), while the share of meat is only $14 billion.

Indian agriculture, it must be emphasised, is also globally competitive. As per latest data from the World Trade Organisation for 2015, India ranked 19th in overall merchandise exports, but 9th in agricultural exports. India is probably the only country where you can get a dozen bananas or eggs for one dollar! Our share in global agricultural exports can easily reach 10 per cent from the present 2.35 per cent level, if supported by appropriate policy intervention and aggressive marketing.

India’s mixed crop-livestock farming is a model of sustainable agriculture for the whole world. Highlighting this unique, low cost and diverse farming system globally will help position India as an agriculturally vibrant economy and a leader in her own right. The poor recognition given to India’s outstanding achievement in agriculture is largely courtesy the “spiral of silence” and not based on empirical grounds. I shall end with this quote from a World Bank report: “India has brought about a landmark agricultural revolution that has transformed the nation from chronic dependence on grain imports into a global agricultural powerhouse that is now a net exporter of food”.

The writer is executive chairman and founder of the crop protection chemicals company UPL

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